WASHINGTON — The Republican candidates for president in 2008 have taken varied positions on abortion and other life issues. But they all seem to agree on one thing — each must somehow reach out to pro-life voters or else lose the GOP nomination.
The power of pro-lifers within the Republican Party has grown steadily ever since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which removed the abortion issue from the political process by forcing legalized abortion with no restrictions on all 50 states. Since that time, the pro-life movement has seized the mainstream of the Republican Party. Ever since the 1980 victory of Ronald Reagan, pro-life voters have held great sway over the party’s nomination process.
“It’s certainly encouraging and interesting that the candidates realize that pro-lifers are strong enough in the early stages of the Republican nomination process that their support is essential,” said Ben Wetmore, president of Students for Life. “The question is whether these candidates will stay true to that after Super Tuesday, after the primaries are over.”
For some of the Republican candidates, such as Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, Tom Tancredo of Colorado, and Ron Paul of Texas, their pro-life credentials are completely or nearly unquestioned. One of the candidates, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, has for years made right-to-life issues his top priority in the Senate.
But the others, including the three putative frontrunners, understand the need to court pro-lifers as they seek the presidency, and each has tried to make up for real or perceived weakness on the issue in his own way.
• Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., whose voting record is mostly pro-life, has nonetheless suffered over the years from an antagonistic relationship with the pro-life movement, partly due to the tangential issue of campaign finance reform.
McCain also cast a vote in favor of human embryonic research last year, and in 1997 he voted to fund fetal-tissue research on victims of abortion. Still, McCain recently took the bold step of saying he wants Roe to be overturned — something President Bush stopped short of saying when he ran in 2000.
“I do not support Roe v. Wade,” he told a large crowd in South Carolina Feb. 18. “It should be overturned.”
• Former Mass. Gov. W. Mitt Romney has also reached out to pro-lifers with what he describes as a recent change of heart on the issue of abortion. In previous campaigns, including his unsuccessful 1994 run for Senate and his 2002 race for governor, Romney embraced the “pro-choice position” on abortion.
“I will preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose,” he said in a 2002 debate. But in a speech in Washington earlier this year, Romney said that he now believes life begins at conception. “I’ve changed my view on that,” he said.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington on March 3, Romney continued to talk the pro-life talk as he addressed the crowd.
“Harvard scientists,” he said with exasperation, “were in my office trying to convince me that it’s not a moral issue to clone entirely new human embryos solely for research.”
• Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is the most outspokenly pro-abortion candidate in the field, yet even while maintaining this position, he has made serious overtures to pro-lifers.
“I believe in a woman’s right to choose,” Giuliani recently told Sean Hannity on the Fox News show Hannity and Colmes. “But I think the appointment of judges that I would make would be very similar to, if not exactly the same as, the last two judges that were appointed,” Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.
Giuliani said that he expected the Supreme Court to eventually allow more state restrictions on abortion. He also said that as mayor he had pursued policies that increased adoption and decreased the number of abortions in New York City.
Wetmore said that members of his group have come to vastly different conclusions in weighing the top three Republican candidates.
“McCain has a very good voting record,” said Wetmore. “His weak point is clearly embryonic stem cells, but he says he’s open to debate on that.”
Wetmore added that Giuliani’s pro-abortion record — which in New York City extended even to support for government funding of abortion — caused problems for many of his associates.
“Most of the students we work with have said that they have real reservations about someone whose record is so clearly not pro-life,” said Wetmore. “At the same time, it seems like a lot of very solid pro-lifers are supporting Romney despite his track record.”
A less-known candidate for president, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, told the Register that although he believes abortion should be legal through the first eight weeks of a pregnancy, he has strongly supported the pro-life movement in his state, helping to enact various restrictions — including parental notification and a 24-hour waiting period for abortions, a cloning ban and a bill to ban partial birth abortion.
Gilmore also pointed to the 1998 case of Hugh Finn — not unlike the Terri Schiavo case — in which he went to court to block the removal of a permanently disabled man’s feeding tube.
“I rely on my record,” said Gilmore.
Former Democratic Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, president of the activist group Catholic Voter, said that pro-lifers should not overlook blemishes on the candidates’ records, but that they should also not immediately reject candidates with spotty records on life issues if they are willing to change sides.
“These are politicians we’re dealing with,” he said. “I don’t believe things happen because there’s a sudden revelation to politicians that they’ve discovered what’s right. I’ve been in politics for 45 years, and I am more practical than that. But politicians do discern the will of Americans better than most people — they are human bellwethers.”
Flynn said that pro-lifers should not be satisfied with mere words of support, but that they should try to demonstrate to such politicians that the defense of innocent human life is politically advantageous.
“Pin them down in their position,” he said. “Encourage them to continue to speak out. Support those candidates politically, contribute financially to the ones that are pro-life, and then show up for political events. Let them know that pro-lifers are political activists. That will help to cement them in their position, to keep their support. The worst thing that could happen is that if people like McCain come out and say they’re pro-life, they’re for repealing Roe v. Wade, and then all they get is heat and criticism from pro-abortion activists and the media.”
writes from Washington, D.C.